A/N: I know it's been an unforgivably long time since I've updated this story but it's been a complicated and very busy year and I've been struggling to find the time and drive to write. Fortunately, it's finally come and now I think I'm finally in a position to continue this story. Make no mistake: this story will be finished one way or the other, I promise you that. As of right now, I've just gotten my B.A., I'm trying to find work, and on top of that, I'm working on a short story so please be patient with me.

Anyway, at long last, here is chapter six. To anyone that still cares about this story and is still paying attention, you have my thanks.


SAVE A PLACE

6. Old Wounds

Four days and five nights, including this one.

That's how long Peyton had been back in Tree Hill, staying at Brooke and Julian's place. And on each of those nights, this one being no exception, Peyton had stood on the second-floor balcony and watched the love of her life exit his beach house, pace the shore, disappear into town for about half-an-hour, then return like clockwork and slip back into his house. The first night, he'd stood there by the tide and she could've sworn he'd looked directly at her.

Lucas Scott was living next door. Of course Peyton had known that both Brooke and Julian saw and talked to Lucas on a semi-regular basis but she'd had no clue he was living only a block away. It just didn't seem real, and yet, there he was.

Peyton yearned to talk to him. She wanted to run up to him, throw her arms around him, kiss him senseless, and tell him exactly how she felt. But she also wanted to yell at him for letting her walk down that aisle two years ago; for not fighting for her, for abandoning her back in LA five years ago. Instead, she watched him from afar, tormented by indecision and fear. She knew almost nothing about what his life was like now. She hadn't had the courage to ask Brooke anything. Was he seeing someone? Was that someone living with him? What was he doing with himself? Was he happy? Where did he go on his nightly strolls? Did he still love her? Did he hate her?

The last time they'd spoken had been in front of a beauty salon and she'd stupidly asked him to come to her wedding. He'd been hurt then, inside and out, and Peyton had wanted nothing more than to take that hurt away. And now, somehow, she sensed he was still hurting. He seemed lost, wandering the beach at night, meandering into town; Peyton sensed that he was desperately searching for something or trying to escape from something, and she wanted more than anything to know what.

Yet she avoided him. She knew from Brooke that he came to the café every morning to watch the sunrise on the rooftop so Peyton had made it a point to avoid the place before the lunch hour. But when night fell, she parked herself on this balcony and gazed at him from a distance.

Above her, ebony clouds swelled with moisture and the tiny, chilly tickle of drizzle on her cheek and exposed neckline served as a faint warning of the impending rain. Lucas had come and gone a couple of hours ago and was currently holed up in his house. Sighing, Peyton stepped back into her room, gently shutting the glass door behind her. Not more than a minute later, the heavens opened up and began pelting the windows and balcony with skeins of bullet-sized rain. The cacophonous hiss of the downpour and the wet tapping and clicking of its impact on the roof made for a serious racket. It might even have been romantic under different circumstances, but not now.

She collapsed on the bed, not even bothering to change into night clothes, and stared up at the white ceiling. Hoping the staccato pattering of the rain would lull her to sleep, Peyton shut her eyes and tried to let herself drift off. No such luck. Frustrated, Peyton propelled herself to her feet and began rifling through the dresser. Locating a sleek, gray hoody, she threw it on then went to the closet to retrieve a pair of black-leather boots and an umbrella.

Maybe a stroll through the pouring rain would tire her out.

xxxxx

He is shivering in agony; unceasing tremors rack his body as he sits upright. People are all around him, darting this way and that, frantically poking and prodding at his peeling, melted flesh. His right arm is eviscerated, or so it seems, and the slightest touch of it and the jagged metal protruding from it sparks an excruciating explosion in his nerves. Yet it is the burning, the continuous searing torment, that causes him to tremble uncontrollably.

He sees no flames, only blood, pus, and ooze congealing in puddles around him and trailing off onto the floor. He smells no smoke, only rancid copper blended with broiled tissue. But he feels as though he is still on fire. He wants to beg the hands grabbing at him, fussing over him, to pour water on him, to douse out these hideous flames, but he cannot speak. He desperately wants the burning to end; it penetrates him down to his bones and beyond, to the very core of him.

He needs to extinguish this fire, he needs—

-the clatter of rain. The storm pelted the house relentlessly, whispering harshly, and to Lucas it was like a Siren's call. He sat up in bed, half-delirious, scratching at his scarred flesh. It burned; he was still on fire somehow, and he needed relief. His heart thundered in his chest and he gasped for air. He launched himself out of his bed and stumbled out into the second-floor hall and down the stairs to the first floor.

Through the den windows, within the miasmic night, he glimpsed the rain soaking the beach. Rain, he needed the rain; it would snuff the flames searing his skin. Lucas made a mad dash for the den. He threw himself up against the glass door, frantically fooling with the lock. Come on, dammit, open! Finally, mercifully, it gave way and Lucas burst out into the storm.

The rain embraced him vigorously, soaking him, caressing him, banishing the hateful fires, bringing peace to his blazing skin. The feel of the chilled torrents saturating him was euphoric, intoxicating, and Lucas bounded across the back porch, down the attached boardwalk, and onto the mushy sand of the beach barefoot. A few feet from the tide, Lucas gazed out into the murky waters. He wanted to run out and dive into the ocean, let the blissful waves engulf him, take him away. His pulse still pounded, vibrating inside him like a massive sub-woofer. His inhalations were ragged, desperate and his eyes hurt from being strained so wide.

The flames had been put out, thank God. He looked down at his arms. Gradually, his pulse relaxed, his breathing evened out, and the fuzz in his head dispelled itself. Through the dark mist of rain, Lucas noted the years-old burn-scars on his left arm and the thin suture mark that crawled up his right arm, also years-old. He had not been on fire, at least not lately. He had only been dreaming a moment ago, and the searing pain had just been residue from that nightmare.

He blew out a large breath. His short hair was matted against his scalp, collecting moisture, which sluiced down the sides of his face and dribbled off his chin and lower jaw in fat droplets. His white t-shirt and dark-blue checkered pajama-bottoms were plastered to his skin and the sand of the beach was like pudding beneath his feet. Lucas stood rooted to the spot, staring at the roiling blackness of the Atlantic, barraged by rain.

This had never happened before. He'd had plenty of nightmares over the past two years, but nothing like this. As he stood there in the downpour on the sand that served his beach house, gawking at the ocean, Lucas couldn't believe he'd actually run out barefooted in the middle of a late-night storm in only his night clothes.

He was about to turn and shuffle back to his house when he heard the voice. It was a voice that was both melodic and painful to hear; one that excited him and frightened him at the same time; a voice that he had never expected to grace his ears again.

"Lucas?"

xxxxx

The umbrella Peyton had deployed over her deflected the onslaught of rain, splicing the torrents of heavenly moisture into rivulets that trailed down the edges as her boots traversed the saturated beach in the direction of Lucas's house. She had not consciously intended to walk this way but her body seemed to be on autopilot. Embarrassing as it was to admit, Peyton had peaked around Lucas's place a couple of times already during the day when she knew he hadn't been home.

She didn't think that was creepy or stalker-ish, she'd just been curious. It was a nice, quaint little two-story house with an attached garage, a wrap-around porch, a boardwalk that extended several feet down the grassy-hill the house was situated on and terminated near the beach, and a pool and gazebo in the backyard.

Okay, so maybe it was a little creepy and stalker-ish.

But the few times Peyton had seen the place up-close during the day it had struck a chord deep within her. It looked so cozy; exactly the sort of starter-home she would've pictured them living together in as newlyweds, had things been different. Not for the first time, she couldn't help but wonder if he lived there alone. The thought that he might not was too much to bear.

The rain continued to wail on the night-cloaked landscape as Peyton approached the stretch of beach that serviced Lucas's house. Holding the umbrella in place vice-like, she stopped suddenly when she saw a figure several feet in front of her. It was a 'he,' she could tell that much, and it seemed to radiate a ghostly-pale light. Then she realized the person was wearing a white t-shirt.

Peyton held her position, cautiously appraising the figure. The rain, dark, and distance obscured much of the person's features and Peyton found herself squinting, trying to peel away the layers of storm and night so that she could get a better look at the individual. Why was someone just standing out there in the rain, in the middle of the night, with just a t-shirt and what looked like pajama-bottoms?

She briefly entertained the notion of briskly turning around and heading back the way she'd come, but Peyton stayed rooted to the spot. Something about this person…

Slowly, she crept forward, closing the distance between herself and the mysterious figure. As she approached, she began to make out more characteristics through the shadow and gloom. Chiseled, angular features, a lean and well-built frame, small, up-turned nose…

Peyton froze within only a few paces of the figure, pulse suddenly taking off like a jet. Lucas. It was Lucas. He hadn't noticed her yet, he seemed to be too busy looking down at his hands and arms. What on earth was he doing out here in the middle of this storm without even an umbrella?

Peyton inched towards him nervously and gradually found her voice.

"Lucas?"

His head snapped towards her and Peyton halted yet again, only a few inches from him. His steely-blue eyes bored into her. Was he shocked to see her? Angry? Hurt? Peyton couldn't tell, and that killed her. She used to be able to read his eyes, at least most of the time.

"Peyton?"

His voice was faint, slightly confused. As Peyton stared at him, dark-blond hair matted to his skull, white-t and pajama bottoms plastered to his skin, she wondered if she was sleepwalking. "What are you doing out here? Are you okay?"

He didn't respond to her at first; instead he looked away and out toward the ocean, then down at his hands again. "I…I don't know. I was dreaming, and…I-I don't know." His eyes focused on her again and, for a split-second, Peyton caught a flash of heart-breaking vulnerability and desperation in them.

What had happened?

xxxxx

The last of the fog cleared from Lucas's mind and he found himself gaping at the vision in front of him. For an insane instant, he wondered if she was a figment of his imagination; a straggler from his unconscious that had opted to remain with him outside of dreamland.

But no, he knew without a doubt that Peyton Sawyer was here, now, standing right before him, umbrella in hand. Sheets of thick rain assaulted them and peppered the sand around them. Suddenly, the umbrella was over him as well, and the rain tapped furiously on the navy-blue fabric, as if it were angry that it couldn't get to them.

Lucas sucked in a breath, and the familiar scent stirred something deep inside him. Barely an inch away from him was the woman that had haunted his thoughts for almost five years. He hadn't laid eyes on her since he'd glimpsed her from afar on the day of her wedding two years ago. He hadn't been anywhere near this close to her since their awkward encounter in front of a hair salon the day before said wedding.

And yet here he was, sharing an umbrella with Peyton Sawyer, who had seemingly materialized out of nowhere. Lucas seriously wondered if he was still dreaming. She was as gorgeous as when he'd last seen her. Clad in only a gray hoody and form-fitting jeans, her long mane of brownish-reddish-blonde waves and ringlets looked so soft it made him want to run a hand through it. Her green eyes were big and earnest, and they radiated puzzlement and…something else, maybe? He couldn't tell and that bothered him since he used to be so good at reading them.

"Are you alright?" Her husky voice was tinged with concern.

No. No, he wasn't alright but he couldn't really say as much. Instead, he said: "Yeah, I just had a bad dream and then somehow, I was out here. It's nothing."

"It doesn't seem like nothing," she said.

You have no idea, he wanted to say. It was only then that he noticed the absence of a ring on the hand holding the umbrella. He risked a glance at her other hand and was surprised that it too lacked a ring. What the hell?

Now fully awake and no longer disoriented, Lucas's mind began to whirl. Obviously, Peyton was the 'friend' Brooke and Julian had picked up at the airport a few days ago and she was the one that had been on the balcony of their condo staring down at him that night. And she wasn't wearing her wedding ring. So what the hell was going on? Why wasn't she wearing her ring? Was it possible that…?

"Luke?"

Her voice snapped him back to real time. "Sorry…sorry about this. I guess I'll just…"

"It's okay, don't apologize," she said. "Why don't we get you inside where it's dry?"

Lucas's heart skipped a beat. Peyton Sawyer inside his house; it was almost like junior high all over again. Back then, he'd only been able to fantasize about the idea of Peyton setting foot in his home. And now, ten years later, on this stormy night, haunted by nightmares and damaged by life, here he was having those same feelings. It was all so fucked up. Lucas wanted Peyton in his home, in his bedroom, in every part of him, and yet, he was terrified of being around her and wanted to run somewhere far away right at this moment. Either way, he was dancing on very thin ice.

"Don't trouble yourself," he said. "I'll be fine. You should head home."

"Luke, I'm not going to leave you out here to get drenched when I have a perfectly good umbrella to share. So let's go," she said in a tone that brooked no argument, her green eyes flashing with fire.

Once again, Lucas felt his heart palpitate. He silently acquiesced and the two made their way onto the boardwalk and up the grassy hill on which his property stood, the umbrella guarding against the rain. As his bare feet padded soundlessly on the moist wood and her heeled boots clicked, a million questions swarmed in Lucas's head and he figured it was the same for Peyton. Neither of them spoke, though. Her scent washed over him and incited the butterflies in his stomach to frantic movement.

They reached the back porch of his house and the awning took over for the umbrella. Peyton collapsed the apparatus and shook as much of the accumulated water from the fabric as she could. The glass door that Lucas had frantically barged through in his delirium earlier stood open. For a minute, they just stood there sheepishly, neither of them knowing what to say or do.

Lucas felt as though he should invite her in even though he thought it would be inappropriate. It was only then that his body caught up with his mind and he realized that he was drenched head-to-toe and chilled to the bone. Except for the curious sensations of warmth that drifted across his left arm and parts of his back and collar, and seemed to slither up his right arm.

His scars! How had he not realized till right this instant that in only a t-shirt he was this exposed? Peyton's eyes were no longer on his but were now resting on his right arm. The damned laceration was more noticeable in the dark than the burns and it was obvious that Peyton had finally spotted it. Shit! He crossed his arms, trying to obscure as much of the mark as he could with his left.

Peyton's eyes found his again and Lucas could see the shock in them. Pulse hammering, he waited with trepidation, bracing himself for the salvo of questions that would inevitably come out of her mouth. But she said nothing. That was almost as bad.

"So…I guess you should get home," Lucas said. "Thank you, though."

He thought he saw hurt in her expression. Truthfully, Lucas had to fight the urge to ask her to come inside with him; he wanted that more than anything. But he couldn't. Too much had happened between them, there were too many things he'd have to explain, and he didn't even know what the situation was with her and her husband, ring or no ring. He wanted her to stay but she had to leave.

Peyton gave a forlorn nod. "Yeah…yeah, you're right. I guess I'll see you around, Luke."

As the blonde redeployed her umbrella and set out into the storm once again, Lucas's eyes stayed fixed on her as she made her way down the boardwalk and onto the beach. Even after she disappeared out of sight into the misty, rainy night, Lucas stood rooted to the spot, still dripping wet.

What just happened?

xxxxx

"What happened to Lucas?"

Brooke's coffee-mug froze near her lips and the brunette stared at Peyton as if she'd just started speaking Latin all the sudden. It was a crappy way to greet her best friend and benefactor first thing in the morning, Peyton realized, but she absolutely needed to know. She hadn't gotten so much as a second of sleep last night after she'd returned soggy and stunned from her encounter with Lucas. She had actually considered the possibility that she really had fallen asleep and dreamed the whole thing but she knew very well it had been real; as real as the pink vine-like scar that curved up and down Lucas's arm.

Peyton was no doctor but she knew a thing or two about scars. After all, she'd been living with a permanent if not small one near her right ankle since that horrible day back in senior year of high school when she'd ended up on the wrong end of a troubled classmate's gun. The one she'd seen on Lucas hadn't been trivial and Peyton couldn't help but assume it had something to do with his odd behavior. So that was why she was bugging Brooke, who looked every bit the deer in headlights as she messily gulped at her coffee before setting the mug down on the counter.

"Okay, a) good morning to you, too, and b) what are you talking about?" Brooke's expression seemed to be genuine puzzlement.

"You mean you don't know?" said Peyton, surprised at the confusion on Brooke's face. "How can you not know?"

"Umm…because I can't know what I don't know?" The brunette's left eyebrow was thoroughly cocked as she cautiously sipped at her mug.

Peyton huffed. "The scar. On his right arm."

At that, Brooke's eyes widened slightly. "His arm? There's a scar on his arm? I only noticed the one on the back of his neck."

"Wait, his neck?" Peyton hadn't noticed it last night, though it had been dark. "What are you talking about?"

"Okay, okay, time out." Brooke set her mug down on the counter and sat down beside Peyton. "Obviously, we need to uncross our wires if we're going to get anywhere. When and how did you see this scar on Lucas's arm? For that matter, when did you even talk to him?"

Peyton told her about last night. The brunette was genuinely shocked.

"Wow," Brooke said. "I had no idea. Every time I've seen him he's always been wearing long-sleeved shirts. No wonder."

"I don't get it, Brooke. I talk to Nathan and Haley pretty frequently, and Karen every once in awhile, and none of them have ever even hinted at Lucas getting injured," said Peyton.

"Yeah, same here. Whatever happened, Haley won't talk about it and I don't feel right asking Nathan about it behind his wife's back." Brooke set down her mug and leaned in toward Peyton somewhat. "And to be honest, I'm not sure Karen even knows about it."

Peyton gaped at her best friend. "What? How could that be? What is going on here, Brooke?"

Brooke raised her hands. "I have no idea, P. Sawyer. Your guess is as good as mine."

Blowing out a sigh, Peyton propped her elbows on the polished marble of the breakfast counter and rested her chin on her knuckles. "I swear, this town is like the universal nexus of drama."

The brunette bobbed her head in ascent. "Yeah, it's practically the perfect setting for a long-running soap opera."

Peyton cracked a half-smile at that. Still, she promised herself in that very instant that she was going to find out what had happened to Lucas. She needed a strategy, but she'd think about that later.

"Hungry?"

As if in direct response to Brooke's inquiry, Peyton's stomach grumbled. "Now that you mention it, yeah."

"How 'bout we have breakfast at the Café? My treat."

Peyton hesitated. Lucas would probably be there. But maybe that was a good thing; she was done hiding from him. "Yeah, sure, that'd be great. But could you treat me to some coffee first? It's still dark outside."

Brooke rolled her eyes as she stood up and made her way over to the coffee-maker. "Gee, I hardly noticed. I was too busy being interrogated."

Peyton flushed with guilt. "I'm sorry. You know I can never repay you for what you're doing for me, right?"

Removing a milky-white mug wrapped in water-colored cats from the cabinet and setting it down on the counter with a glassy thud, Brooke stared at Peyton as she filled it with the pitcher she'd removed from the coffee maker. "Don't be ridiculous, Peyton. You're my best friend, and that's what best friends do for each other. Haven't we been over this?"

Peyton smiled as she accepted the mug from Brooke. "Yeah, I guess I'm a little slow. Thanks."

"Anyway," said Brooke as Peyton sipped coffee, "since Julian is usually gone most of the day, it's nice to have someone to come home to."

Peyton glanced around. "He's not here? I didn't hear him leave."

Brooke sighed. "Yeah, he's location-scouting in Wilmington for his latest production."

Peyton studied her friend. Julian was passionate about his work—nothing wrong with that—but Peyton just hoped he wasn't letting it distract him from what was really important. Peyton had no doubts about how much Julian loved Brooke; it was just the protective instinct in her flaring up. She reached over and took the brunette's hand.

"You know, if you want Julian to be around more, maybe you should tell him that," Peyton said gently.

Brooke shook her head, giving Peyton's hand a squeeze. "No, it's not that. We trade texts and emails several times a day, and he comes to the café for lunch most of the time, so we're never out of touch, and he's only like twenty minutes away, it's just…I wish he'd slow down a little, you know?"

Peyton set her mug down and got up, circling around the counter where her best friend was. Placing and arm around the brunette's shoulders. "I know. Just talk to him, he'll understand."

Brooke nodded. "You're right. Anyway, let me get cleaned up and we can head to the café."

Peyton smiled as she watched Brooke dump the rest of her coffee and shuffle off to her bedroom. Her smiled gradually faded as she turned toward the window above the sink and peered out into the early-morning darkness. Now if only she could figure out what she was going to do now.

xxxxx

Lucas told himself he wasn't hiding. That he'd just had to skip his usual jaunt to the café and viewing of the sunrise from the café roof because he'd needed to get an early start on his work—and to be fair, he had gotten a lot of work done throughout the day—and not because he was afraid of being accosted by Brooke, whom Peyton had no doubt told about his stroll through the pouring rain last night, or running into the blonde herself.

No, he'd just been busy, glued to his Ultrabook, his digits chiseling away at the keys, editing, revising, tweaking; it had all needed to be done. He'd been holed up in his house all day for the sake of industriousness, no other reason. Still, despite all of his self-assurances, he'd found himself slinking every time he'd had to get up and do something, shoulders hunched as though he were back to being a preadolescent boy that knew he was guilty of something and was desperately trying to hide it.

He spent almost every moment anticipating a knock at his back door or the ringing of the doorbell—Brooke or Peyton, or maybe even both, looking for an explanation as to why he'd been strolling along the rain-soaked beach in his night-clothes. The joke would be on them, though, because he didn't have one.

God, was Lucas mortified. He was almost used to the nightmares, but even in the throes of the worst of them he'd never actually gotten up and wandered outside his house half-delirious. And to run into Peyton, the girl that had been haunting him constantly for years, while doing it…he just couldn't believe it had actually happened. He'd tried to pretend it'd been part of the nightmare but he knew that wasn't the case.

Fortunately, neither the knock nor the sound of the bell had come though his nerves were still wound tighter than a runner's laces. Either way, it was likely he was going to face some tough questions the next time he walked into the café.

The day was fading fast as Lucas saved his document and exited out of Word and it was only then that he noticed he had an email. It was from his mother:

Hi Baby-boy, how are you? It feels like it's been ages since we talked, I've missed you and so has Lily.:(

Speaking of which, Lily wrote you a letter—yes, she's writing now, can you believe it?—and I was hoping she could give it to you herself. Andy and I are planning on swinging by Tree Hill next week for a visit and were hoping we could stay with you, if you have room. I just realized I haven't even seen your new house yet! If you don't have the space, that's okay, just let me know ahead of time.

I'm really looking forward to seeing you, it's been too long.

-Mom

A sickly miasma of alarm, guilt, and yearning billowed up in Lucas's chest. Lily was writing now? Since when? He hadn't seen his mother or his little sister in person since before the accident, and had corresponded with them sporadically. He'd always given some excuse about why he couldn't visit or why they couldn't visit but now Lucas knew he was out of excuses.

Of course, she didn't even know about the accident. He and Nathan and Haley had all reached a consensus that it was best his mother didn't find out, at least not at the time. He wouldn't be able to hide it forever. Hiding the scars would be simple, but when it came time to explain to his mother what had happened to Keith's Mustang he wasn't sure if he could stomach lying to her about it. It would feel almost like spitting on Keith's headstone.

Letting out a sigh Lucas typed out a quick reply assuring his mother that he had no problems with her, Lily, and Andy staying at his house. He'd cross that bridge when he came to it.

As he was about exit out of his account, another email popped into his inbox. It was from Hamilton:

Hey Lucas, hope you're taking care of yourself.

It's been awhile and I definitely think we should get together for lunch or maybe even a pick-up game; I've been so swamped lately I haven't had much time for exercise. My wife bitches about it all the time.

Pro-tip: Never get married.

Lucas grinned; Hamilton's sense of humor was always refreshing. His grin faded as he read the rest of the email.

Anyway, I linked an article from that I think you're going to find very interesting. Looks like karma is a bitch after all.

Take care.

Mark Hamilton, Attorney at Law, PhD.

Lucas was pretty sure he knew what this was about, and when he clicked on the link, his suspicions were confirmed. I'll be damned, he thought. Mark was right, karma really was a bitch.

Stretching, Lucas noticed the time displayed on the tab at the bottom of his screen and realized he'd have to be at the high school soon if he wanted to make the game. He really didn't want to, but he'd promised Skillz he'd be there the other day and he liked to think that, if nothing else, his word was still good for something.

He powered down and closed up his Ultrabook and changed out of the white-t he was currently wearing, replacing it with his favorite long-sleeved white shirt with the hoody attached to the collar. Wasn't exactly a black-tie event and Lucas certainly wasn't looking to impress anybody. Besides, the hoody helped cover up the burn scars on the back of his neck better than his other shirts. This would be the first Raven's game he'd be attending since—well, since he'd been a Raven, and there was always the possibility of running into a familiar face or two. He didn't want to field any inconvenient questions so it was best to cover up as much as possible.

A few minutes later, he was on the road, behind the wheel of his Audi, sliding down the back roads toward the high school. In the fading twilight, the Audi's jet-black frame was like a shadow skulking in the trenches of an abyss, and indeed, the streets around Lucas seemed to have an abyssal quality to them. It was game night, and true to form, most of Tree Hill was already gathered at the field house waiting for the main event. No other lost souls aside from Lucas were wandering around out here and the quietness was like a gentle ocean tide.

This tide quickly dissolved, however, when he neared Tree Hill High. Even almost six years after the likes of Nathan Scott had graced the hardwood with his presence and the victory in the 2006 State Championship game against Pontiac, Ravens' games were still events that drew the majority of the townsfolk like a Fourth of July celebration. The parking lot and the gym itself were lit up like Madison Square Garden and the persistent blaring of car horns set the mood. The electronic signboard near the entrance flashed 'RAVENS – BEAR CREEK; Tonight 8pm' in big, abrasive yellow letters while someone dressed as the team mascot-or maybe it was the actual mascot-greeted incoming cars with an enthusiastic flap of its foam wings.

As Lucas passed the waving mascot he felt the strangest tidings of nostalgia and another emotion he couldn't put his finger on. How many times had he driven past that sign in Keith's Mustang or in the old tow-truck Keith had used to loan him on his way to class? Seemed like several lifetimes ago now. In fact, it was.

Lucas squinted his brow as he made his way into the parking lot. The place was packed, but since most everybody was either hanging around near the field house or already inside, his was the only car trolling around the aisles searching for a space. He finally spotted one beside a familiar BMW X-series SUV. As he approached and pulled in, Lucas noted the plates and realized it was, in fact, Brooke's Beamer. That surprised him a bit; he didn't know Brooke attended these games. Maybe Skillz had guilted her and Julian into it, too.

He got out, locked the car, and made his way toward the gym at a measured pace. He couldn't help but feel strangely exposed, as if he were trespassing. But as he approached the white-block columned breezeway that connected the school proper to the field house he was slammed by a squall of memories and feelings he'd thought long buried. His feet paused and instead of proceeding into the open doors of the gym, where the hauntingly familiar screech of rubber sole on polished hardwood and echoing thud of the dribble awaited him, he turned toward the set of glass doors that lead into the main building. None of the people milling about paid him any attention and if anyone asked, he'd just say he was looking for the restroom.

Lucas pushed through the glass doors and stepped into Tree Hill High for the first time in six years. The faint smell of linoleum and the characteristic dark-blue and amber color scheme sent him reeling back through time, when he'd treaded these halls on a daily basis. As he meandered through the corridors, he found all four of his old lockers, which had since apparently been upgraded into a more modern set. The classrooms hadn't changed much and neither had the tutor center or the coach's office. The latter was dark; Skillz was no doubt in the locker room or out in the gym by now.

Looking at his watch, which read 7:51, Lucas realized he should probably be, too, if he wanted to grab a seat before the game started. He quickened his pace toward the gym but slowed abruptly as he passed the library. There were memories there, too, ones Lucas didn't care to revisit. But as he was about to move on he spotted movement through the glass slats. Unable to resist his curiosity, he approached slightly and narrowed his eyes at the figure leaning against the circulation desk. It was Brooke, dressed in black leggings and a frilly-at-the-edges, dark-red top. She was obviously in a conversation with someone off behind one of the shelves, probably Julian. But it wasn't Julian who emerged from behind the shelf, it was Peyton.

Lucas's breath seized as his eyes raked over the dark-blonde's frame, which was adorned nicely with ripped jeans and a blue and red checkered button-down which was rolled up at the sleeves. Her reddish-blonde hair flowed down her back in rough waves, curling at some of the ends. Was it impossible for her not to look gorgeous?

Lucas hurried off toward the gym before either of them saw him. It should have occurred to him that if Brooke was here, Peyton likely would've tagged along. It was a stupid oversight but what was he going to do? He entered the gym and was immediately discomforted by the noise and the amount of people. In the past, this sort of set up would've invigorated him and stirred a wave of excitement deep in his gullet, but now he could barely tolerate the ocean of chatter and buzzing hive of activity.

Weeks in an overcrowded, understaffed burn unit had left him with an aversion to places swarming with too much activity.

Fortunately, he spotted a relatively barren spot high in the bleachers where it looked like he would at least have a measure of personal space. Carefully navigating his way through rows of spectators, Lucas finally reached the piney oasis and crouched down in the center, bringing his knees up and hunching forward, resting his folded hands in front. It gave him a pretty decent view of the court and it didn't seem like there were any last minute stragglers filing in so it looked like he'd have his little oasis to himself for the time being.

Then he spotted Brooke and Peyton entering the gym to his right, and after about a minute, Peyton spotted him. His eyes locked with her green ones and Lucas felt himself immediately cowed by their intensity. Images of last night flashed through his mind and he couldn't help but look down. Blood rushed through him and he couldn't stop himself from tensing.

When he looked back up he saw her and Brooke making their way up the bleachers and directly towards him.

"Oh boy…" he heard himself whisper.

~Chapter Six End